Half a dozen years ago, Sara Zaske moved with her scientist husband and child to Berlin. There she learned things about the way Germans raise their children—among other things, they teach them how to deal with matches, not never to touch them!—and thereby learned more about herself and her very American assumptions about child-rearing. Zaske’s book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, was published this week by Picador USA. You can buy it at local booksellers or directly from the publisher. Our excerpt comes from Zaske’s introduction.
FEW PEOPLE smile on the trains in Berlin. By some unwritten rule, everyone sits silent and straight-faced on the S-Bahns and U-Bahns that run above and below the city. If you see people who are smiling, chances are they’re tourists. If they’re talking and laughing loudly, chances are they’re American.
One gray day in Berlin, my daughter, Sophia, and I were talking and laughing loudly on an S-Bahn full of quiet German passengers. Sophia was two and a half and super chatty. We had recently arrived in Berlin, and everything was new to her. I wasn’t about to shush her as she commented on the things passing by her window: the trees, the stations, another train, the cars on the road. She saw a bus, which was her cue to launch into her favorite song, “Wheels on the Bus,” at top volume. The wheels really go round in Sophia’s version. I glanced at the old woman across from us, trying to remember the proper way to phrase an apology, when the most amazing thing happened: she smiled.
Finally, I thought, someone appreciates how adorable my daughter is. Then, the woman opened her purse and pulled out a small piece of candy. She didn’t even look at me. She handed it directly to Sophia. I panicked. I hadn’t yet taught Sophia not to trust strangers with candy! In America, people just don’t offer candy to children. I battled conflicting impulses: grab Sophia and storm off? Or be polite to the first stranger who had made a friendly gesture?
Sophia turned and held the candy up to me, a huge smile on her face. I let politeness, and logic, prevail: this German grandmother was clearly not trying to kidnap my child, and there was no chance a razor blade could fit in a piece of candy that small. I took it from Sophia, unwrapped it, tried not to be too obvious about examining it, and handed it back to my daughter. She popped it into her mouth—and, amazingly, didn’t die.
This experience taught me two things: first, Berliners didn’t know about “stranger danger,” and second, my assumption that Germans were unsmiling, unfriendly people who were harsh with children might not be entirely true.
As I would learn over the next six and a half years in Berlin, much of what I thought I knew about Germans was wrong—especially the way they approach raising children. The parents I met were almost the polar opposite of the stereotype of the overbearing, strict German parent. In fact, compared to today’s American parents who constantly supervise their children, they were positively relaxed.
When my daughter turned three, we invited a family we had met in our neighborhood to a picnic at a local park. It was a sunny spring day, and the park was beautiful with long stretches of green lawn bordered by tall trees. We chose a spot close to an enclosed playground, which had a tall stone wall in front of it. Shortly after arriving, our friends’ two children asked if they could go to the playground.
“Sure,” their mother said.
“Can I go too?” Sophia asked. I agreed, and all three of them went running off, two three-year-old girls and a five-year-old boy. They disappeared behind the wall, out of sight. No one else moved. Their mother started arranging plates on the picnic blanket. Her husband was talking with mine as he set up the barbecue. Feeling like I was missing something, I got up. “Um . . . I’ll go,” I said.
“Oh!” the other mother said. “They’ll be fine. They play here all the time.”
“It’s just that—Sophia might need help,” I said and followed the kids. I remember thinking how strange it was that this couple didn’t watch their children on the playground. Then I noticed all the other unsupervised kids running around the park. Some parents were watching over babies and toddlers, but most of the adults were at picnic tables or sitting on blankets talking with each other while their children came and went.
This was normal behavior in Berlin. Parents didn’t hover over their children on playgrounds, many of which feature large structures like giant wooden boats and towering pyramids made of rope and metal—way more dangerous than the typical American playground of plastic and padded foam. In Berlin, school-age kids also walk to school, parks, and stores alone, or with only their peers as company. Adults rarely interfere in their children’s play, not even their fights, preferring to let them work it out themselves.
It’s part of the cultural value of selbständigkeit, or self-reliance. In America, we might call this “free range” parenting, but in Germany, it’s normal parenting. German parents believe that independence is good for children, that handling risk is a necessary part of growing up. This means they trust their children with more tasks as they grow older and supervise them less. Children are also assumed to be capable of making some decisions for themselves even at a young age, including whether or not to take a piece of candy from a nice lady on a train.
Beyond the Stereotype
Whenever I tell my American friends and family about how much freedom German parents give their children, they react with surprise and disbelief. I usually end up reminding them how long it has been since the end of World War II. Because it is true that German parents were strict and authoritarian—in the 1940s. They have changed quite a bit since then.
Many Americans’ idea of Germany is still fixed at World War II. The conflict has become somewhat of an obsession in the United States, judging by the sheer volume of books and movies we’ve produced around the war and the Holocaust. Some historians have even argued that there has been an “Americanization” of German history, which oversimplifies the Nazi years and culturally appropriates the Holocaust. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote in 1999 about this tendency, recounting how American tourists were disappointed to find out there weren’t gas chambers at the Buchenwald concentration camp. “Before, people did not want to see the truth,” said Volkhard Knigge, director of the Buchenwald memorial. “Now they want to see what they expect to see, and we have to disappoint them and show how rich and complicated history is.”
Another persistent, oversimplified American idea is that our country was the lone rescuing hero of Europe during World War II, even though historical facts don’t support this interpretation. We conveniently forget that it was the Soviet Army, not American forces, that took Berlin and forced Hitler from power. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, more than 8.8 million Soviet soldiers lost their lives fighting in World War II, a number that dwarfs American and British military casualties, which numbered closer to 400,000 each. This fact should not diminish the sacrifice of our soldiers; rather, we should expand our concept of victory to include the significant contributions of our allies at the time.
Blame it on poor history education, exaggerated patriotism, or inaccurate Hollywood movies, but some Americans can’t be swayed from this heroic vision even when presented with evidence to the contrary. A friend of mine who works as a tour guide in Berlin told me that the American tourists she takes to World War II monuments and museums remain convinced that it was the United States that won the war. British and Russian tourists, of course, have other opinions.
America as the hero of World War II is so entrenched in our culture that perhaps it is hard to let the other side of that equation, the enemy, Nazi Germany, become a thing of the past. To change our idea of modern Germans, we might also have to change our idea of ourselves.
Excerpted from Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children by Sara Zaske, published January 2018 by Picador USA. Copyright © 2017 by Sara Zaske. Published by arrangement with Picador USA. All rights reserved.